We understand that Southwark Council have started moving homeless families into the decanted and nearly empty blocks on Ledbury Estate in Peckham.
The decision to decant all tenants from these four blocks each of 56 flats was made in August 2017 following recognition of the severe fire and building safety risks identified after the Grenfell Tower fire nearly 3 years ago. Key risks relate to the failure of flats to be completely sealed from each other. By early 2020 only tens of flats are still occupied mainly by leaseholders.
These large panel system (LPS) blocks were built in the late 1960s by Taylor Woodrow Anglian (TWA) who at the same time and to the same design built Ronan Point and the other now demolished Newham Council tower blocks.
Over thirty years ago back in 1987 Newham Council also hatched a plan to place homeless families into three of its empty decanted blocks. Sam Webb's report to Newham Council housing committee in September 1987 persuaded them that they could not “take the option to move a new and highly vulnerable group of tenants into conditions which are totally unsatisfactory and potentially very dangerous”.
On Lock Down Day, 23 March 2020, The Lancet published a report by Michael Gormley from Heriot Watt University highlighting the World Health Organisation (WHO) 2003 report into why a 50 storey building in Hong Kong was the focus of the deaths from SARS (another Coronavirus) epidemic.
It states that “airborne virus-laden droplets could move via the sewer and plumbing network from one apartment to another. This airborne transmission route was aided by bathroom extraction fans which drew contaminated air into rooms”.
There is an additional risk if the U bends of sinks and toilets dry out and are not flushed with fresh water daily which would be the case on the nearly mothballed Ledbury Estate.
Southwark Council commissioned an external review of its repairs service on Ledbury estate since 1996. The review published in May 2018 says that the majority of reported repairs, nearly 40,000, were regarding plumbing and also that those indicating potential structural risk factors increased annually from 2010 onwards.
The Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has pointed out that “coronavirus is discriminating, targeting those with underlying health conditions and black and minority ethnic (BAME) communities. Poor health is often a product of inadequate housing, overcrowding and poverty”.
Homeless people are amongst the most vulnerable in our communities. Often coming from BAME communities, asylum seekers sometimes with limited English, experiencing domestic violence and physical and mental health issues. Yet we understand that some homeless people in Manchester have refused to be moved into tall blocks as an emergency response to Covid-19, because they consider that one risk too far.
These are very challenging times in which we are all constantly weighing up a range of competing risks in the face of deaths and emerging scientific evidence. We call on Southwark Council to think very carefully before compounding the health risks already being experienced by these vulnerable children and adults.
Please contact us if you have experience of other councils placing homeless families in tower blocks as a response to Covid-19.
Liz Lowe, Sam Webb, Frances Clarke
Tower Blocks UK